Monday, January 15, 2024

Yes, You Should Find Mary Roberts Rinehart's Alibi for Isabel

When I picked up Mary Roberts Rinehart's Alibi for Isabel (1941), I believed it to be a novel and was quite surprised to find myself in the middle of a story collection--and what a pleasant surprise it came to be. This is my first Rinehart book, and I had no idea that she was considered America's Agatha Christie but can see why. The stories in this collection are wonderfully readable and full of variety in plot. There's murder mysteries, war stories, and even a Florida fishing story. Some stories end like punchlines and others with the ominous knowledge of what's to come. All of the characters are interesting, even when they're plainly awful.

The opening story "Once to Every Man" is about a couple with a one-year old; the mother is exhausted with caring for the child, even with the help of the nurse, and this is exacerbated by the rationing that makes shopping its own set of hurdles. Early on, we learn that her husband has announced that he will be leaving her for his mistress, and even would like her to take the train to the lawyer in order to draft up the papers. She realizes the utter nonsense of his decision and decides to leave the baby with him so that he can can come to his own epiphany. 

And so he finds himself unable to focus at work, starts noticing the flippant greed of his mistress-fiance who does not want to care for the baby or cook or sit home with him when she could be out dancing; he is then confronted by the nurse-maid packing up and leaving to care for her sister, which leaves him as the sole caretaker of the baby. No other women can be hired because they are all working jobs related to the war and making more money than they would otherwise. Unable to find help, he stays home from work, suffers from no-sleep-thanks-to-baby, and when the cupboard is bare he has to push the stroller and baby to the store, a task made more difficult due to the ration book and the weight of what he buys (his wife had solved the problem by using the stroller as a cart and having the nurse-maid care for the baby at home). 

Within only a few days, he realizes not only the financial cost of leaving one family to marry again, but also the pleasure that came from spending evenings home with his wife. He sees, finally, all that she has done to keep his life steady, despite the clear upheaval of life the introduction of the baby has caused, and he sees the error of his ways. It's then that she returns, and the story ends with sort of a wink when she calls up the nurse-maid and tells her it's fine to return now. 

Later in the collection is a story that is almost the inverse of that plot, "The Temporary Death of Mrs. Ayers," in which Mrs. Ayers, an older woman/widow who lives alone but has busy days ensuring her adult children's lives are steady and that she supports the war effort by volunteering at the Red Cross; meanwhile, her own financial situation is dire and still have not recovered since 1929. Her feet are hurting her something awful, one son needs to borrow money for his business, the younger son wants to enlist in the war (his older brother had served in the first world war), and her granddaughter is in the hospital having her appendix out. Finally, when she feels faint, a doctor checks her pulse and advises her to stay home. Of course, none of her children know her financial situation or the emotional weight she carries by caring for them--much less the steady drain on her caused by constant war. The idea of rest, though, seems laughable to her until the weekly family dinner she hosts when her son's finance starts stridently insisting that she support the son's decision to enlist. And then she announces the doctor's advice for her to rest, but she exaggerates the extent of what she needs: 
"It's to be rather drastic," she said, "The idea is to cut myself off entirely. I'll not be seeing even any of you. No radio, no telephone, no newspaper, no visitors. I'm not even going to talk to Sarah and Annie [her household help]. It's to be--well, exactly as though on took a thumb out of a bowl of soup"

Which is to mean that her removal will seem to change nothing in the lives of everyone else. Her children rally and cheerfully escort her up the stairs to her room. It's then in these two weeks that she has the time to reflect on her life, talk to the portrait of her deceased husband, and rest from the constant beat of war. She rereads the love letters her husband wrote her when they were first married and he was in the Spanish War. On the second week, she begins feeling more restless and goes down during a night blackout and talks to one of the volunteer watchmen. It seems like the first real conversation she has had, where she isn't holding back one part of her in order to steady the other. At the end of her isolation, she feels much better, sees that her children have survived without her, and is able again to contribute to the war effort. It ends with her volunteering to stand by the air-raid phones.

She felt happier than she had felt for a long time [... Sitting by the phones] wasn't much, she thought. But after all wasn't that what this war was about? That weary people, men and women and children, could sleep in peace; could live and work and sleep.

Above her the sky was filled with stars. Some day Andy would be up there. But perhaps Herbert [her husband] was up there too, and maybe God and all his angels. She waited serenely, while she put her family and the beaten weary world into her hands. 

What I appreciate about the stories is not only the strong female characters who often appear (although there are frivolous ones, too) but also her candid portrayal of the war--whether its effect seems small, as in the fact of rationing, or whether it changes the course of the characters' lives, such as in my favorite story "Test Blackout" when a man volunteers to be Post Warden on night shift once a week. His wife finds his decision laughable and makes fun of him to her bridge-playing friends as he goes out, wearing the helmet and gear he wore in the first world war. It does not fit well, which he is aware of. But in volunteering, he has gained relationships with the men in the neighborhood and regained a clear purpose for his life; his life as a businessman was flailing. He now feels needed and necessary. 

On the night of the story, there's to be a test blackout, and while the readers are allowed to see the seriousness of the event, he is on edge for it all to go well and has clearly practiced all the steps of the evening. His wife, however, leaves their apartment lights on, and he has to leave his place to call her up and remind her. Her response is to shrug him off. She forgot, she says, even though he'd reminded her. It's in this interaction that we see to the nth degree how little she listens to him and what it means for some people to disregard the war or live as though it weren't there--thus endangering the lives of everyone else. She lives her life as though everyone were playing at war, which allows her to continue playing at life--hosting bridge parties and making jokes.

During the blackout, his fellow warden and friend is wounded and rushed to the hospital. Earlier we learned that this friend was a single father and had instructed his child on what to do should something like this happen, and so our man goes to pick up the boy from the apartment and envisions a new life for himself. He imagines raising the boy so that his friend can enlist in the war, the boy visiting for summers the rest of his life. And he imagines how he will tell his wife and at first she will not go along with it but eventually she will. It's a story of purpose, and almost like a glimpse into the life of Tom in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit before he is sent off to the war, which explains why his life after the war seemed so purposeless and hollow.

Overall, Alibi for Isabel is an interesting collection full of fresh and clever stories, both deeply rendered or necessarily flat characters, and now provides a useful glimpse into the lives of people during the decades between the world wars. It certainly highlights how passive and distant our own civilian lives have become, despite the many wars ongoing around the globe. It seems that a great many of us are playing bridge from warm apartments.

When out book-looking, I will definitely keep my eye out for more vintage paperbacks by Mary Roberts Rinehart. This will certainly not be my last by her. She clearly has a lot to teach me about writing and life.